Cooling of US Midwest summer temperature extremes from cropland intensification

Abstract

High temperature extremes during the growing season can reduce agricultural production. At the same time, agricultural practices can modify temperatures by altering the surface energy budget. Here we identify centennial trends towards more favourable growing conditions in the US Midwest, including cooler summer temperature extremes and increased precipitation, and investigate the origins of these shifts. Statistically significant correspondence is found between the cooling pattern and trends in cropland intensification, as well as with trends towards greater irrigated land over a small subset of the domain. Land conversion to cropland, often considered an important influence on historical temperatures, is not significantly associated with cooling. We suggest that agricultural intensification increases the potential for evapotranspiration, leading to cooler temperatures and contributing to increased precipitation. The tendency for greater evapotranspiration on hotter days is consistent with our finding that cooling trends are greatest for the highest temperature percentiles. Temperatures over rainfed croplands show no cooling trend during drought conditions, consistent with evapotranspiration requiring adequate soil moisture, and implying that modern drought events feature greater warming as baseline cooler temperatures revert to historically high extremes.

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Figure 1: Peak rates of summer chlorophyll fluorescence49 in the US Midwest are the highest observed anywhere on the planet.
Figure 2: The centennial trend towards cooler daily maximum temperatures during the summer in the Midwest is strongest for the hottest days of the year, and is accompanied by elevated precipitation across much of the region.
Figure 3: Strong correspondence is found between the cooling pattern and cropland intensification, whereas increased irrigation correlates with cooling over a subset of the area and land cover change to cropland exhibits no association.
Figure 4: Rainfed areas show reductions in extreme temperatures only when sufficient moisture is available, increasing the temperature difference between drought and non-drought years, whereas irrigated areas are cooler regardless of drought status.

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Acknowledgements

We thank F. Rockwell, T. Sinclair, L. Mickley, K. Harding, T. Twine, P. Snyder and C. O’Connell for helpful discussions. We thank N. Ramankutty for sharing the updated historical cropland data set. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (Hydrologic Sciences grant 1521210) and by a fellowship from the Harvard University Center for the Environment to N.D.M.

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N.D.M., P.H., N.M.H. and E.E.B. conceived of the study. A.R., K.A.M., M.T. and P.H. developed the precision-decoding necessary to enable quantile regression. N.D.M. led data analysis, with assistance from P.H., E.E.B. and A.R. N.D.M., P.H. and N.M.H. led writing and interpretation of the results, with assistance from E.E.B., A.R., K.A.M. and M.T.

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Correspondence to Nathaniel D. Mueller.

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Mueller, N., Butler, E., McKinnon, K. et al. Cooling of US Midwest summer temperature extremes from cropland intensification. Nature Clim Change 6, 317–322 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2825

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